This last Friday afternoon was quieter than most. After a surprisingly cold spell for the past couple of weeks, the weather has finally begun to moderate. Spring has arrived. With temperatures in the mid-70s on Friday afternoon, the campus buildings were like mausoleums: the student body had passed on to a better place, leaving nothing but the old school spirit to haunt the halls and accompany me as I went from my office down to the classroom where I would conduct my last class of the day and week.
“Irresponsible students,” I thought to myself, half grinning about the prospect of teaching in a room where I was the only living soul. It wouldn’t be the first time; and besides, this wasn’t really my class, anyway. I’ve sort of ended up adopting it because the regular professor has been absent quite a bit.
This particular class is the last pre-calculus (“pre-calc,” we call it) course. The few young people who take the “hard science” track and make it this far are going into the heavy-hitter fields: one student wants to be a physicist; another plans to go into computer science; a third sees astrophysics as the way to go; two others want to be engineers; and the sixth isn’t sure, but he thinks he’ll go into physical chemistry.
That’s all: six young people, five males and one female. Not very many, considering how important their technical and theoretical work will be to the world of tomorrow. This course has the content they should have learnedor should have been taughtin their Junior or Senior year of high school. Some of them did take higher algebra and trigonometry, but the knowledge was not imparted in such a way that it infused to their minds to become the set of routine thinking and symbolic manipulation skills necessary for survival in the rigors of the calculus. Several of these kids had even taken a “calculus” course in their last year of high school, a choice that almost invariably leads to an entering Freshman college student who has nothing other than the ability to say, “But I took calculus in high school. How come I’m having to take pre-calc here?!”
The much-vaunted “No Child Left Behind” ruse has done nothing to bring us better-prepared students. It has made them unable to comprehend why most professors won’t teach to their tests. Some students are bitter about this. They think we’re trying to blindside them with unfair questions; they rightly claim that we have questions and problems on exams that we “didn’t cover in class”; and some believe we waste a great deal of time on material that never shows up in assessment instruments. However, all of that being the fact of the matter with respect to the way students are these days, it’s always easy as a long-time teacher to fuss about how students were better in some grand time of yesteryear. A whole lot of that is nothing more than an application of the fantasy about the utopian past that never really existed even though everybody is absolutely convinced that it really did.
These kids are no stupiderand certainly no brighterthan the kids I taught in 1981. At the same time, I’m no betterbut fortunately no worsethan I was in that same year, the one when I began what would become my lifelong, enduring profession among the many pursuits I would engage as I tried to earn enough to keep body and soul together in the scholarly ghetto of non-tenure track higher education.
Sure enough, Room 1302 was empty when I walked in. I flipped on the lights and headed over to the behemoth of a computer/audio-visuals console, which in that room is situated on the far left side at the front. In many classrooms, those awful monstrosities are plopped right smack in the middle at the front of the room, serving as beastly, low-lying fortresses for the teachers who would prefer not to interact at close, unprotected range with their audiences.
I sat down and started shuffling through papers to find the pile of exams I needed to grade before Monday. If I got through that mess, I’d have more time to spend on a stack of essays through which I would have to force myself to plow, a chore that always takes hours and hours because I cannot keep myself from meticulously addressing the atrocious grammatical errors that pervade student writing. We professors are being flogged into a big “writing across the curriculum” fad. To my misfortune, having been trained in the old-fashioned notion that a cogent thought cannot be conveyedindeed, cannot quite existwithout a structured, consistent framework of exposition, the essays I read are simply awful, and it’s because the students cannot write worth a damn. Still, if I could get those remedial algebra exams graded, I’d have the whole evening to sit in the coffee shop and delight in cursing comma splices, sentence fragments, and utterly incoherent chains of unshaped thought striving to pose as college-level writing.
I hadn’t even so much as opened my plastic fold-over case when I heard approaching voices echoing in the hallway outside the classroom. I absently thought that it must be a couple of ne’er-do-well students who hadn’t quite figured out they’re not supposed to be in the building when it’s 76 degrees outside.
The voices got louder. I heard laughter: several male-types and a female.
More yakking. They were almost to the door.
“You have got to be kidding,” I thought to myself.
Yes, it was five of the six students in that class. They had shown up, all of them rolling in, talking, laughing, heading to their usual seats.
The young woman, her long, curly hair wet from having just been at the pool, was grinning from ear to ear, protesting, “Look, so I’ve lived a sheltered life. I’ve never even heard of these groups.”
The young men were having a heyday. “So you’re saying you’ve never heard any of their music?” one of the boys insisted.
“No… maybe. I don’t know!”
Another of the young men said, “This is tragic, man.”
They bantered back and forth as I sat there staring at them. That flash of mild exasperation I had felt a moment before was gone. I just stared at them. Three of the four boys were dressed in baggy clothes. Their hair was long. The fourth boy, who always sat on the side opposite the others, wore a crisp sport shirt and had a slightly nerdy, John Edwards-style haircut. He, too, was smiling at the exchange going on, but he said little other than to nod in agreement with what the other boys were saying.
I wanted to keep looking at them. My God, they were so… beautiful. It was as if I were looking at a timeless antique, still perfectly new. They were so modern, but at the same time, they were the very embodiment of something so old, something I almost forget sometimes, something I almost forget to love sometimes.
“Awright,” I huffed in the best snarl I could feign, “what’s this all about?”
The one young man, slender, with a wild mane of red hair tied back as best he could, turned around in his seat and said to me, “She is so out of it!”
“Okay! So I’ve lived in a cave!” she interrupted. “I admit it!”
“She’s never heard of Nine Inch Nails, Professor.”
“Can you believe that?” another of the boys said as he shook his head.
Knowing very well that this whole conversation was not going to take the class in the direction I wanted it to go, I still gamely turned my attention to her and asked, “Well, I’m sure you’ve heard of, say, Barry Manilow.”
“Well, duh,” she answered as she put her head down and looked up at me with a grin of exasperation. The young men started hooting and howling.
I started naming groups, mostly from the ’70s and ’80s, that she might recognize.
Pink Floyd. (“Yeah… I’m pretty sure.”)
The Police. (“The who?”)
No, that was another group. More guffaws.
Grateful Dead. (“That’s creepy. Didn’t he, like, die or something?”)
Okay, moving forward, Metallica. (“Their music is supposed to be evil, isn’t it?”)
REO Speedwagon. (“Yeah.”)
Aerosmith. (“Duh. Who hasn’t?”)
Devo. (“Never heard of them.”) The young men surprised me by having a fit about that. They started talking about the hats and all that strangeness. I made a minor point about the explosion of talent and different directions music took in the 1980s. I mentioned the Eurythmics, Sting and The Police, and other extraordinary individuals and groups. When I got to Klaus Nomi and some others in the hard-core avante-guard movement that came out of the ’70s, the boys got a little quiet. I let it go, knowing I had slightly opened a door I could push open further a little later.
The young fellow with the fiery red hair fumbled with his portable CD player, finally managing to get the CD out. “Would you play just one track from this so she can hear Nine Inch Nails?”
That computer/audio-visual workstation had been used for quite a few presentations over the course of the semester, but I was pretty sure it had never been put to a task like the one it was about to take on. The stereo speakers in that room, crummy as they are, were certainly mounted high enough to ensure that the sound would practically rip the drywall down were I to leave the volume up where most professors like to have it to play educational videos.
I opened the CD drive on the computer and put in the latest Nine Inch Nails album. Windows Media Player came to life and offered me fifteen tracks of what to many would not qualify as “music” in any classical sense of the word.
“Play track 3. That’s a good one,” the redhead announced.
“Track 3 it is, then.” A flurry of track requests followed: track 7 was “totally awesome”; so was track 10; and she’d have to hear track 15, which starts out with vocals but then goes into a long, instrumental second half.
It was only when I hit the faux play button on the Media Player that I realized I hadn’t adjusted the volume control. The sound that issued forth from those speakers could have awakened the dead. I scrambled to bring down the volume as the room instantly filled with raw noise.
I got it under control and said, “I have to keep it down because I’ll get my ass kicked if anyone else hears what we’re doing in here.”
“I can’t understand anything they’re saying,” the young woman protested as she walked a few steps at a time toward the speakers. Two of the boys started singing with the music. The lyrics contained words like “bomb” and “nation,” and she quickly got the idea. “This is, like, social commentary, isn’t it?”
“Some of it,” I volunteered. “At first, this sounds like nothing but loud, awful noise; but once you get used to it, the words start making sense… although no one seems to know what some of these groups are saying in their songs. Nine Inch Nails isn’t like that at all, though.”
She sat down on a table at the front and just looked at the speakers as the music played.
We all started talking. First, it was about horror movies. We went from lame Stephen King stuff to violent but artful movies like Sin City and Pulp Fiction. I brought up The Mariachi Brothers trilogy, something no one was familiar with. I suggested the Evil Dead trilogy, along with Bubba Ho-Tep, which got roars of agreement that those were some of the best. One of the young men asked me if I knew about Dark City, and I affirmed that it was a classic, except for the corny final confrontation scene. We all agreed that trying to make Dune into a movie was a wrong against nature.
“Of course, the movie that defined science fiction movies ever after was Blade Runner,” I declared to enthusiastic agreement.
One of the students asserted that the last truly classic science fiction movie was Chronicles of Riddick, and I told him he was right.
We kept talking as the music moved from track to track. Several times, I asked the young woman if she was getting used to the music. The last time, she said, “Yeah. It’s pretty cool. I guess this means I’m not living a sheltered life anymore, right?”
We all talked some more. Science stuff. Several times before in that class, I had made passing mentions of where technology was going and what they’d see during their lifetimes. Teleportationthe Star Trek stuffreally fascinated them, especially since they were hearing me talk about it as an engineering problem rather than as a wildly silly science fiction idea. It’s all about extremely high-speed information storage, transmission, and retrieval, really. Data compression. Quantum entanglement. Plasma fields.
Beyond teleportation lies true star navigation, sort of like how it was portrayed in Frank Herbert’s Dune, except that it won’t be drugs that will turn people into star navigators. At least I don’t think that’s how it will be done; but who knows?
The fractional quantum hall effect gets them excited, especially since the hunt is on to find minerals that actually display this odd, non-standard state of matter. Maybe we’ve found one, maybe not. String theory is cool, too, especially since it’s all based on equations some guy did over a hundred years ago that were pretty useless until someone noticed that the sub-atomic universe behaves just like in that dead guy’s equations, which had to do with how springy things like rubber bands work.
The class was supposed to end at ten minutes to the hour, and I had maybe ten minutes left when track 15 was finishing up on the CD. I had mercifully skipped some of the songs that would have gotten us behind where I wanted to take the students before the end of the period.
I fired up the overhead projector so the computer screen would display on the front whiteboard, and I said, “I’m going to turn you people on to something really different.”
Rare is the time when something so brazen could be done to kids that age; but I had a moment when they would not just listen, but maybe even buy into the possibility that they could get something totally new into their repertoire of cultural standards.
“Back in the 1930s, there was a really great singer named Billie Holiday, a woman who sang a lot of different songs that made her about as popular as an African-American could be in that time. One of the songs she did, they made her change some of the lyrics because the song was so depressing. There are stories that, even with the less depressing, sort of upbeat ending of the song, people committed suicide and left notes quoting some of the morbid lyrics that were still there.
“What I’m going to play is a YouTube of the song, done with the original lyrics, from a performance by Diamanda Galás, a modern performance artist whose voice can go from the stunningly operatic to the utterly frightening. The video is really disturbing, so sit back and enjoy.”
I had managed to find the YouTube video of Diamanda Galás doing “Gloomy Sunday,” and I launched it.
During the runtime of almost five minutes for the video, those young people in that room didn’t move a muscle, nor did they say a word. They all stared at the screen, just like their classmate had stared at the speakers when she was listening to Nine Inch Nails.
I had so much to tell them about what they were seeing, especially about the face of Galás contorting, looking almost masculine, and how all of that was related to the theatrical devices of “burlesque” and “travesty” from clear back to ancient Greek performance traditions. I wanted to tie that in to the cycles of plays in Medieval England and to the Shakespearean devices that captured audiences, and how modern performers from Kiss to Snoop Dogg use burlesque and travesty, as have comedians like Milton Berle and Benny Hill and political pundits like Ann Coulter.
I especially wanted to tell them about how Diamanda Galás is famous in her performances for unintelligible vocalizations, which are part of an expressive tradition called “glossolalia,” which connects unbelievably diverse human behaviors ranging from shamanistic ululations to evangelical Christians speaking in tongues, and along the way picks up the cadenced non-word sounds that make certain old Blues music so interesting and that was embraced in some early Rock-and-Roll songs. This is the stuff of “signal processing theory,” a really intense mathematics field. We can find ways in our minds to discern meaning and value in what sounds at first like the sheer, random noise of Nine Inch Nails and other auditory and visual artists who are inviting their audiences to use the power of consciousness to reach for and acquire meaning in the chaos that isn’t chaos to those who are willing to let their senses adapt, just like I want my students to do when they learn math. We can write computer programs that tease out and reconstruct human voices with nothing but zeroes and ones. This is the same idea behind the brutally complicated math of handing off a cell phone signal from one tower to another as a person drives down a highway, and it’s the same idea behind how we’ll eventually understand the way millions and millions of patterned firings of brain neurons create consciousness and construct representational reality. And someday, long and far into the future, it is these same ideas we’ll use to build the tools with which the star navigators will cast our descendants across the universe.
I needed to be quiet, though, and let my students take in something they’d never before seen but were in the frame of mind to accommodate.
The song ended, and the screen went black. After a brief, dead silence, the nerdy-looking young man mumbled in a small voice, “Shit… That was awesome.”
The girl said, “I’m so depressed, now,” as she and the others got up to leave. She kept going on about the lyrics and the visuals and how she couldn’t tell whether Galás was a man or a woman and how she was wondering how she’d ever catch up with all the music and movies she’s been missing.
I shut down the audio-visual console and killed the lights as I left the classroom behind the others.
We got to the lobby area. The students all headed out the main doors, and I went up the stairs, back to my office where I could spend an hour grading papers before going somewhere to get a fresh cup of coffee.
By the time I finally left the building, it was almost dark, and I was tired.
It had been such a good day at college.
The Dark Wraith still has papers to grade for Monday.